AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Warren Gatland wore short sleeves on Thursday. The selection surprises he had kept under wraps were out in the public domain; Steve Hansen’s challenge for Gatland to reveal what he had hidden “up his sleeve”, had been met. Hansen had a couple of his own.
Bluff, counter-bluff, blocking, scrum interpretations, quad injuries, ‘Warrenball’, jet-lag, hongis, suicidal schedules, hakas and an itinerary and travel plan to make a migrating bird tired, it’s been some build up to the Test series. But the wondrous, intoxicating thing about sport is logic means little when it comes to the match.
George North? Gone. Leigh Halfpenny? Benched. Sam Warburton, the tour captain? Benched. Warren Gatland’s team for the first Lions Test was a shock — but a positive decision.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
The All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park since 1994, they are the best team in the world and back-to-back world champions. And they have Beauden Barrett. The Lions have been together a few weeks, the Test squad haven’t played an 80-minute game together, and the players are in their thousandth hotel of the tour.
Surely this will be an All Blacks win? But then… there is this gnawing feeling at the back of your mind, that Gatland — one of the best coaches professional rugby has known — has this all under control. The team is building to a crescendo, they are clicking. They couldn’t… could they?
Gatland spoke brilliantly on Thursday; commanding, authoritative, direct. In 20 minutes on the top table, he jumped between childhood memories, why he feels the Test series is not about him, selection dilemmas and whether he had riled his All Blacks counterpart.
Hansen, speaking almost at the same time as Gatland 11 miles across Auckland, also delivered his pre-match press conference with authority, side-stepping any loaded questions while explaining his own surprise selection. The two old Kiwis have this Test build-up in the palms of their sizeable hands.
But for all the verbal volleys between the two camps over blocking, game plans and selection ambiguity, when the two teams take to the Eden Park turf it will be about rugby. Nothing the coaches have said in the build up will mean anything. It will be about styles, it will be about set piece, it will be about application, it will be about the size of the heart, it will be about winning… and losing.
The tour has been 12 years in the making. New Zealand is excited about Saturday, though some are still myopic when it comes to rugby — the Lions shut down the opposition and get labelled boring, but how about some appreciation for why the Crusaders, Chiefs and Maori All Blacks managed just one try between them? Tactical masterclass or anti-rugby? It’s a more divisive question than if you like your steak medium or medium rare.
Steven Hansen, left, and Warren Gatland will go head to head in Saturday’s first Test. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
The Lions have had the hardest build up of any side to wear the red jersey. They have been exposed to the fleet-footed brilliance of Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams’ offloads. But they are battle-hardened, there is no danger of them being half-cooked. They are ready.
“We took on an incredibly tough schedule, it’s nothing the Lions have ever faced in the past, in terms of quality of midweek teams,” Gatland said. “Sometimes in the past midweek teams have been a bit of a frolic, but we’ve been tested all the way.
“And for me this is about wanting this group of players to play for Lions and their future. And not just the heritage but also if we can protect this iconic brand, make it strong and healthy then we can all benefit in future.”
For Hansen, he has been here before. He was part of Graham Henry’s coaching staff in 2005. That Lions group came with a magnum of bluster, but were dispatched with tails planted between over-modernised legs. He knows that the All Blacks will be met with a red wall of passion on Saturday. The usually quiet Eden Park will need to be at its vocal best to counter the swathes of Lions fans heading to Auckland.
“It’s exciting and you can feel the enthusiasm and the real hunger in the hotel with the players. They’re really up for it,” Hansen said. “That doesn’t guarantee to win the thing but it does guarantee that your attitude is right, and we know that if our attitude is right and we get our clarity right then we’re a good side.
The Lions will be led by Peter O’Mahony in Auckland. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL BRADLEY
“So then it means the opposition have to be, too, and they’ve selected a side that’s capable of playing a different type of game then we play. And that in itself is intriguing and very interesting to see the result once it’s all been played out.
“There’s nowhere to hide, is there? It’s advantage to the team that wins the first one but there’s still two more to go after that and there’s been plenty of occasions in sport where people have come from behind to win.”
The series has a lot to live up to. The 1971 Lions are still talked about in this part of the world; they changed the All Blacks. The 2005 crop are also mentioned, but for polar opposite reasons. The 2017 lot are an unknown bunch, but there is a curiosity around Gatland. New Zealanders aren’t too happy when one of their own heads overseas and then returns with the opposition.
But the off-field sideshows are now talked-out, filed, forgotten. This is now about willing and the power of mind over matter. There will be 23 players in black, and 23 in red who will have soaked up all the pre-match hype, just itching to get their hands on the ball. It is now down to them to do themselves justice, and ignore the weight of history.
“We know it’s going to be a tough encounter,” Gatland said. “Let’s let the rugby do the talking because there’s been enough trash talking already. So let’s get excited about what could be a fantastic match.”
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Time for talking over as first Test looms
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